One reads/hears in various discussions (especially with aversively working dog owners/trainers) again and again the following sentence:
“You distract him only with treats” or “but without treats, it does not work” or… my highlight “but not every dog takes food in the encounter”.
But what is there to these, often little thought out, parroted pearls of wisdom?
First of all, I would like to clear up with my highlight, because it points out an important point for the respective dog.
Can a dog in an encounter no food take, but otherwise already, the distance is namely much much too small.
If, on the other hand, a dog cannot take food at all outside, the general stress level must be urgently scrutinized. There are dogs that simply find food very uninteresting, but these are extremely rare. If the circumstances are right, it is usually necessary to find a food that the dog likes (e.g. liverwurst).
Some dogs also have food all day long and are full. This almost always affects small dogs. It would not be necessary to provide food all day and is also not so optimal in terms of hygiene. So you could just try to make it different.
The reward does not have to mean food. While food is beautifully simple and works wonderfully in the vast majority of cases (if you play a bit with the administration), it is by far not the only option.
If you want to reward your dog situationally appropriate and varied, you can write down the hobbies of your dog. Then cross out everything you don’t like. The rest is your reward list.
Now you need a good eye, because not only do you have to catch the moment of desired behavior, but you have to recognize beforehand what your dog was about to do. After all, that will be the ultimate reward for the situation.
You can also use other things that just fit the context. The further away from your dog’s original intention, the less high-quality the reward.
Exceptions are the things that are extremely high value for your dog anyway (e.g. 10 treat game) over which he then forgets his actual motivation.
As you can see, there are so many possibilities that the sentence “but he doesn’t take food in encounters” doesn’t propagate anything useful 😉
“it won’t work without treats”.
This sentence can only come from someone who has never been beyond luring in training and has never been creative with rewards.
Just because I always have treats with me doesn’t mean that my dog always gets a treat for everything. Sure I mark and reward a lot because I love seeing sooooo many behaviors that I like. But that doesn’t always mean food.
And if I don’t wave a treat in front of my nose for every behavior I want, yes my dog performs first and then gets rewarded. He does not know which reward will follow.
So he can’t even think about whether he’s doing it for a treat.
Apart from that, any behavior that has a good reward history (i.e. has been rewarded often) also becomes a reinforcer…
So makes no sense either, this wisdom.
And last but not least.
“you’re just distracting him with a treat”.
In most cases, someone here hasn’t quite figured out the difference between distracting and rewarding.
When I distract, I want my dog to be unaware of the stimulus (e.g. another dog).
This can be useful if the situation is too tight, I see a dog ahead and am not ready for training, the nemesis is across the street, etc. So it’s a management technique that can be used when my dog can’t handle the situation any other way.
And what’s wrong with that?
Nothing at all!
Sure, the dog doesn’t learn how to deal with the conspecific better at that moment. But that’s why it’s not our only training option.
But if it gives me an alternative to lashing out, I’d much rather have that than have my dog practice lashing out.
When rewarding/reinforcing, on the other hand, my dog is definitely engaging with the stimulus, exhibiting a desired behavior and being rewarded for it.
So it is something completely different.
Here, my dog can definitely decide what he will do when he recognizes the conspecific. If I am too close and he cannot show a desired behavior, he will probably freak out, because that has worked well so far.
However, if he feels confident enough to show something desirable, I have exactly the sustained training I wanted here.
If I now use a suitable reward (anything that increases distance) my dog learns:
“oh, that also works to get the other one further away… and I get something in addition”.
Why shouldn’t he reach for the desired thing more and more often in this setting? It pays off twice.